|International Vegetarian Union (IVU)|
35th World Vegetarian Congress
'Food for all our futures'
Heriot Watt University, Edinburgh, Scotland
July 8-14, 2002
The Vegetarian Society
of the United Kingdom
By Jane Bowler (editor of The Vegetarian - VSUK magazine)
Saturday: essential health issues
Saturday's key theme was 'vegetarianism and health', and I resolved to attend some important presentations about vegetarian and vegan nutrition. Dr Ruth Heidrich's talk, entitled The Calcium Deficiency Myth, was a must, as I wanted to know more about osteoporosis. Ruth is a phenomenon - diagnosed with breast cancer in her late '40s, she chose to join a clinical trial which required her to go vegan overnight. She attributes her recovery to her diet, and has now been vegan for 20 years. Ruth is a dedicated marathon runner and triathlon athlete, and now has a collection of some 700 first place medals! Apart from her commitment to the vegan diet, the key message in Ruth's presentation was that it is essential to exercise in order to maintain bone strength. Just as eating protein does not mean your muscles automatically get stronger, so eating calcium doesn't automatically mean that your bones get stronger Ruth advocated running as a means of strengthening the bones in the legs, hips and spine, and weight-bearing exercise for the arms and wrists. Amazingly, over the last 20 years, during which time she has eaten a purely vegan diet and experienced the menopause, Ruth's bone density has actually increased.
I couldn't miss Rose Elliot's first cookery demonstration, entitled 'quick
and easy after-
It was time to hurry back to the auditorium for one of the most important presentations of the week. Paul Appleby's lecture on the long-term health of Western vegetarians was absolutely packed with statistics - not surprising, as Paul is Senior Statistician with Cancer Research UK as well as Secretary of Oxford Vegetarians and a past council member of both the Vegetarian and Vegan Societies. Paul's statistical analysis of five studies in the UK, Europe and America, considered in detail the effect of our diet on our life-span, and on the likelihood that we will develop health problems such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes. I will not attempt to cover all the statistics Paul presented, and the text and slides he used for the talk are available at
However, it was quite surprising to realise that only in recent years have we begun to understand the effect of a vegetarian diet on our long-term health. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence about vegetarians who have lived long and healthy lives, but when you consider that, to be reliable, a study has to take thousands of vegetarians, and follow them through their lives until death, it is obvious that these things take time!
As expected, Paul showed that eating meat has been linked to heart disease, and this is the main area in which a vegetarian diet does seem to confer long-term benefits. Overall, vegetarians tend to have lower blood pressure, lower blood cholesterol and are less likely to be overweight than the general population. One study concluded that the number of women who die from breast cancer is significantly higher in the vegetarian population - Paul speculated that this may be due to the fact that vegetarian women are more likely than the general population not to have children, and childbearing has a protective effect against breast cancer. One study, mainly based on the Seventh Day Adventist population in California, found that vegetarians on average live 1.5 to 2 years longer than their counterparts. Paul suggested that the vegetarian population in this study were generally non-smokers, with a relatively high socio-economic status, who exercised regularly and were not generally overweight. However, Paul's wider analysis of all the main studies carried out on vegetarians and non-vegetarians since the 1950s revealed that there is no significant difference in life-span between vegetarians and non-vegetarians. Paul then encouraged us to attend Stephen Walsh's talk about vitamin B12, which he indicated, might shed some light on this matter.
Stephen Walsh's talk was, in my opinion, the most informative of the Congress. In retrospect, perhaps it should have been one of the first presentations, not the last, as it provided a great deal of food for thought! Stephen is Vice-Chair of The Vegan Society, and I half-expected him to be rather defensive about the lack of B12 in the vegan diet. However, he pulled no punches. Firstly, he explained the function of vitamin B12 and folate in the body. Both are essential for the synthesis of DNA in the body. They are part of a chemical cycle which produces neurotransmitters and antioxidants, and eliminates toxins in the body. Deficiency of vitamin B12 leads to a build-up of a toxic by-product called homocysteine, which studies suggest can increase the risk of heart disease, stroke and pregnancy complications.
Classical vitamin B12 deficiency manifests itself as anaemia and lack
of energy, and symptoms of neurological damage including numbness and
tingling, blurred vision, sore tongue, loss of balance, poor memory, and
personality changes including delusions and paranoia. All of these symptoms
are reversible if caught early enough, but in children, rapid onset of
symptoms can cause permanent damage. In adults, symptoms of vitamin B12
deficiency can manifest within a year, or can take many years to occur,
depending on a person's genetic make-up and their body's initial stores
of the vitamin. Stephen explained that measurement of homocysteine in
the blood is probably the best way to judge whether a person is deficient
in Vitamin B12. He told us that the level of homocysteine in the blood
should ideally be below 9 µmol/litre. According to Stephen's analysis
of all the research on vegans available to him, the average level of homocysteine
in vegans is about 14 µmol/l - putting the average vegan in the
danger area! Stephen stated that lacto-vegetarians, fish eaters and occasional
meat eaters in general live about two years longer than vegans. This is,
in Stephen's view, due to elevated homocysteine levels. He also pointed
out the strong association between high homocysteine levels and dementia,
citing a 2002 study which showed vegetarians and vegans have a higher
chance of dying from neurological and mental disease than the general
population. High homocysteine levels are also associated with depression.
Stephen's first point, then, was that B12 is an essential part of our
At this stage in the talk Stephen was aware that many members of the audience had strong opinions about the availability of vitamin B12 in a non-supplemented vegan diet. There have been many claims about vegan wonder-foods which are said to contain the vitamin. Stephen showed us a list of these, and stated that vitamin B12 cannot be obtained from seaweed, tempeh, algae, mushrooms, wheat grass, or dirt! Some of these contain B12 'analogues', which can in fact hinder the body's absorption of vitamin B12, and can give a false reading in blood tests - although you may appear to have a good level of vitamin B12 in your body, this is not actually available for the body to utilise. Stephen stated that the only way for vegans to get vitamin B1 2 is from fortified foods and vitamin supplements. These are based on a fermentation process involving bacteria. Ultimately, Stephen stated, all vitamin B12 comes from bacteria. Our lack of B12 is due to our hygienic food preparation methods, not from failure to eat meat. He cited certain primates which seem to have a vegan diet, and stated that these animals obtain vitamin B12 from bacteria and insects.
Stephen strongly encouraged all of us to take a vitamin B12 supplement, and stated: 'Good vitamin B12 intake may be the key to adding four years to the vegan lifespan and putting vegans clearly ahead of other groups in mortality comparisons.' I must emphasise that I have done my best to convey Stephen's message correctly - it is not a message that some vegans may welcome, and I would recommend that if in doubt, you contact Stephen at the Vegan Society for advice.
At the plenary session, Ruth Heidrich again impressed us all with her incredible fitness level. She told us that we are ambassadors for a vegetarian/vegan diet - by showing ourselves to be healthy and full of vitality, we can get people to say 'I'll have what she's having!'
We ended the Congress in style with a completely vegan Gala Dinner, and dancing to a Ceilidh band. Congratulations to Tina, on her election as the new Chair of the International Vegetarian Union!